The Romans conquered the Andalusia region of southern Spain two centuries before the birth of Christ. They thrived on its fertile lands, rivers and valleys. At its peak, Rome had 20,000 citizens, while at its peak, the city of Cordova in Andalusia, had over 500,000 citizens and was the largest city in Europe flourishing from the fruits of the land.
But what do the Romans have to do with fish?
The Roman Empire fell in part because of environmental degradation, deforestation, desertification, erosion, and salinization of lands from poorly designed irrigation methods. Today, Western civilization may decline because we are overfishing the rich ocean — our “fish basket” — polluting the oceans, contaminating most wild fish with mercury from coal burning power plants, and destroying coastlines with over packed, waste-producing, pesticide — and antibiotic-using fish farms.
My recent article in The Huffington Post, Fish: Wild or Farmed?, was my attempt to grapple with the questions of how we preserve the oceans, maintain wild fish stocks, eat fish that doesn’t poison us with mercury or find “sustainably” raised fish. The blog generated violent opposition and comment. However, the all or nothing thinking of “farmed bad,” “wild good,” often encouraged by environmental groups may just have found its match.
I asked a simple question for which I had no answer at the time. If we all agree that feedlot fish is bad for the environment, and us, then we must ask, what is the equivalent of grass fed fish? Is there a way of producing fish that comes as a byproduct of restoring ecosystems, of regenerative practices that require not 10 to 20 pounds of small wild fish (ground into fish pellets) to produce one pound of the fleshy fish we humans so love to consume?
Now, back to southern Spain.
I recently visited Seville and Cordova, near the most extraordinary fish farm. Well, it was not exactly a fish farm. It was a bird sanctuary, thriving wetlands, and a phytoplankton and algae farm. Fish was a by-product, just as cows, chickens, lamb and pigs are by-products of grass farms. Luis Contreras began working at the farm seven years ago and helped transform this fish farm from an abandoned beef feedlot into a thriving oasis for healthy fish. He shared the details of his farm with me over a glass of Spanish Rioja and a meal of sweet, moist, delicately textured grilled sea bream and gray mullet harvested that morning from his “phytoplankton farm.”
Farming “Grass Fed” Fish
Veta la Palma, initially started in 1994, is now a thriving 8000 acre wetland estuary ecosystem in a national park that happens to produce 2000 tons of delicious, omega-3 rich, toxin free sea bass, sea bream, shrimp, eel, and sturgeon a year. It is actually a restored wetlands, and the largest bird sanctuary in Spain with over 220 species of birds — pink flamingo fly 150 miles each way to feast on the high quality fish this “farm” produces. In fact the birds consume 50 percent of all the shrimp and 20 percent of all the fish produced.
At Veta la Palma, they measure the health of their “farm” by the health of their predators. Imagine ranchers measuring the health of their lands by the health of the wolves that feed on the sheep. Six years ago there were no birds at Veta La Palma, just cows. The transformation that has taken place there in just a few years is truly astounding.
Most sustainable fish farms farm intensively, while Luis farms extensively. Typically, high inputs of energy (a 10 or 20 to one ratio of fish feed to edible fish), and large amounts of waste are created in order to make our food. Producing fish this way is, at best, a short-term solution to the fish problem. Veta la Palma does things differently. It is the fish-farming equivalent of a “grass farm”.
It starts with a hatchery cultivating diverse species. These baby fish need some fish feed, and some electricity is used to manage the water flows in the estuary. But there are very low inputs of energy for huge outputs of biomass. This is the opposite of industrial agriculture and feedlot fish farming.
For most of their lives, the fish are never fed, except by Mother Nature, eating their “local, seasonal, organic, indigenous foods.” They eat the phytoplankton and microalgae that transforms light, carbon dioxide, and nitrogen and phosphorous into enormous biomass (fish) that feeds birds and humans. The “farm” acts as a treatment plant filtering pollutants, purifying water and producing food. It buffers global climate change. Luis also explained how the “weeds” called Salicornia grows abundantly over marsh. Fed to farm animals this weed lowers cholesterol 50 percent and is now being used by chefs across Europe.
Some may wonder where we can find similar lands available to re-create this amazing ecosystem. No question it will require a radical rethinking of what’s possible. I am a doctor that addresses the ecology of health, not an aquaculture or wetland expert, but Veta La Palma seems to me a model of the future of fish farming. Nurturing, supporting and restoring diverse natural ecosystems makes sense for our health and it is a better way to produce food long term.
I imagine the possibility of damaged and neglected wetlands across the planet modeling this simple idea — restoring ecosystems and creating food for birds (and humans get to snack on the leftovers). National parks, coastal wetlands, estuaries, governments, ecologists and entrepreneurs together may create a solution to our fish problem. Perhaps one day soon, the estuaries around New York City will once again produce seemingly endless quantities of giant oysters and lobsters, and prisoners will riot again, as they did in the 18th century because they are sick of eating lobster and oysters.
The TED talk by chef Dan Barber tells the story of Veta La Palma in more detail. For skeptics of fish farming, watching the talk is a brisk wake up like the sea breeze on a winter day in Cape Cod. I strongly recommend it.
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